The ancient city of Messini in Peloponnese, Greece.

Shutterstock / Dimitris Panas

Ancient Messini

Top choice in Messinia

The remains of this vast ancient city are as extensive as those of Olympia and Epidavros, yet Ancient Messini receives only a fraction of their visitors. Picturesquely situated on a hillside below the village of Mavromati and still undergoing excavation, the site comprises a large theatre, an agora (marketplace), a sizeable Sanctuary of Asclepius and one of the most impressive Ancient Greek stadiums. Entry includes the small museum at the site turn-off; don't miss the impressive Arcadian Gate 800m beyond, either.

Ancient Messini was founded in 371 BC after the Theban general Epaminondas defeated Sparta at the Battle of Leuctra, freeing the Messinians from almost 350 years of Spartan rule. Built on the site of an earlier stronghold, the new Messinian capital was one of a string of defensive positions designed to keep watch over Sparta. Epaminondas himself helped to plan the fortifications, which were based on a massive wall that stretched 9km around the surrounding ridges and completely enclosed the town.

Apart from its defensive potential, Ancient Messini was also favoured by the gods. According to local myth, Zeus was born here – not in Crete – and raised by the nymphs Neda and Ithomi, who bathed him in the same spring that gives the modern village its name. The larger area is called Ithomi.

The first construction you come across is the large theatre, reconstructed for contemporary use. The path leads past the tiered Fountain of Arsinoe building, which supplied the ancient city with water. Next is the extensive agora, with remains of long stoas (columned porticoes), a public bathhouse, a Doric temple dedicated to the deified patron of the city, Messene, and a treasury. The Greek general Philopoemen was held prisoner by the Messinians here in 183 BC and dispatched to the other world with poison.

Beyond is the Sanctuary of Asclepius, the spiritual centre that lay at the heart of the ancient city, consisting of a rectangular courtyard fringed with Corinthian columns. Unlike at Epidavros, this was not so much a healing centre as a repository of cult statuary. This extensive complex was centred on a Doric temple that once housed a golden statue of Ithomi. The modern awning west of the temple protects the Artemision, where fragments of an enormous statue of Artemis Orthia were found. The structures on the east side of the Asclepion include the ekklesiasterion, which looks like a small theatre but once acted as an assembly hall. Nearby are the remains of a Roman villa, the steel roof protecting the mosaic remains.

Head downhill to the large stadium, which is surrounded by a forest of restored columns. You can see where the Romans closed off part of the athletics track, turning it into a gladiator arena. On the left-hand side, near the arena, are the VIP seats – the ones with backs and with lion paws for legs. On the right-hand side, near the rebuilt gate of the enormous gymnasium, are round holes in stone slabs – Roman public toilets positioned over a stream. The gymnasium itself includes a washroom with very well-preserved basins around it.

The curious building near the toilets is a grave memorial to an important Messinian family, and the Doric temple at the far end of the stadium is a mausoleum of the Saithidae, a prominent Roman family.

Lonely Planet's must-see attractions

Nearby Messinia attractions

1. Museum of Ancient Messini

0.37 MILES

The compact museum, by the turn-off for Ancient Messini, houses some wonderful statuary from the site – including a copy of one of the best-known statues…

2. Arcadian Gate


It’s well worth heading 800m along the road from Mavromati village, past the museum to the celebrated Arcadian Gate. This unusual stone portal with a…

3. Chora Archaeological Museum

13.88 MILES

This old-style museum houses finds from the palace site and other Mycenaean weaponry, jewellery and pottery from tombs around Messinia. The prize pieces…

4. History & Folklore Museum of Kalamata

14.07 MILES

This quaint eggshell-blue building holds an exquisite collection of donated local artefacts – from tools and looms to household items and clothes – that…

5. Archaeological Museum of Messenia

14.07 MILES

This partially interactive, child-friendly museum focuses on treasures found in four regions – Kalamata, Pylia, Messini and Trifylia. Exhibits include…

6. Kastro

14.12 MILES

Looming over the town is the 13th-century kastro (fort). Remarkably, it survived the powerful 1986 earthquake that levelled the city. The entry gate is…

7. Church of Ypapantis

14.14 MILES

Kalamata's massive 19th-century cathedral is home to the icon after which the town takes its modern name. Pilgrims visit for its miracle-working icon of…

8. Military Museum

14.18 MILES

One for war buffs, this museum's displays depict Greek military history from the Turkish occupation to the Greek Resistance to Nazi occupation and 21st…